The Search for a Peacemaking Culture
Takashi Tanemori was eight years old when the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. He lived less than a mile from ground zero, and his mother and sister were killed instantly. He and his younger brother, at school that morning, managed to survive. His father died within a month. Beside his grave,Takashi swore he would avenge his loved ones’ deaths.
Telling his story recently, he reflected, “My greatest enemy is the darkness in my own heart.” Forty years after the bombing, Takashi had a vision of his father and recalled his dying words: “Live for the benefit of others.” He now confesses, “Forgiveness is setting my heart free – and yours may be set free too.” The effects of radiation continue to attack his body, but his spirit has discovered the path to wholeness. Though he is going blind, Takashi sees clearly that the nuclear threat is – at its core – a spiritual problem.1
The advent of nuclear weapons permanently altered the ethical discourse about war and peace. Nuclear weapons bequeath toxicity leaching across borders, radiation cycling through generations, and revenge feeding on the spirits of the young. These weapons mock the sanctity and dignity of life. What could be more offensive to God?
If the nuclear threat is a spiritual problem, then the good news for people of faith is that it requires a spiritual remedy. We have the opportunity – in our homes and houses of worship – to create cultures of peace, encourage creative conflict resolution, and engage in Christ-like reconciliation. This is our task, the work of spiritual formation and shalom.
A Theology of Shalom
If nuclear weapons pose a unique threat to God’s creation, why are so many congregations silent? One pastor I know calls it “a distance issue” that we mistake as irrelevant to our daily lives. Even more perilous, there exists a national narrative that always threatens to eclipse the Biblical narrative. This national narrative insists that the U.S. alone can possess nuclear weapons responsibly. Our use of nuclear weapons in World War II, this narrative asserts, was justified (if not just). The bald-faced hypocrisy of claiming our right to a weapon we forbid others to have, the clear evidence that the possession of nuclear weapons does more to endanger than to deter, the unrelenting hazard of nuclear waste – all is silenced by this national narrative. The question for people of faith is whether we will legitimize such a narrative at the expense of the Biblical call to peacemaking.
Though the dictionary defines peace as “the absence of war,” Walter Brueggemann describes shalom as God’s persistent vision that all of creation be as one, each in community with the other, “living in harmony and security toward the joy and well-being of every other creature.”2 As a Christian educator, my highest hope for our children is that through their spiritual formation, they will lead lives rich with shalom. The richness of shalom moves well beyond a “war is not the answer” placard. It invokes God’s healing of the violence in our hearts, communities, and world. If shalom is the palpable presence of healing, wholeness, and harmony, then war must be actively prevented, not passively avoided. A theology of shalom is practical – it can’t be nurtured privately without affecting how we engage public life.
Women know that international violence and terror bleed down into culture, communities, and homes.
So how do we build cultures of peace in our homes and houses of worship? How do we resist a national narrative that stifles moral outrage? Perhaps we begin by asking good questions. How do we communicate about conflict? Are we developing the practice of deep listening? When do we carve out time for reflection and meditation? Is prayer a priority? How do we confess, forgive, reconcile?
Assessing our current spiritual and political practices, we might see the Biblical narrative anew. Jesus’ final days offer a powerful witness to peacemaking. On the eve of his betrayal, Jesus broke bread with the one who would betray him. Embodying servanthood, he washed the feet of each disciple. In the garden, Jesus wrestled with God in prayer, grappled with death, and offered himself as an instrument of God’s will. He did this not because suffering is good as an end in itself, but because he was engaged in the life-giving struggle against evil.
The church re-enacts the final supper (and practice of foot-washing) to remember that all are welcome at God’s table to a meal that fills our deepest hunger for communion. We acknowledge that no act, however violent or repugnant, is powerful enough to separate us from God’s love. We repeat Jesus’ prayer, asking God to forgive us as we forgive others. The table of reconciliation is a central location for peacemaking. We must guide our children to God’s table, break bread with friends and adversaries. We must remember the significance of the forgiveness, grace, and reconciliation that God holds out again and again.
First Things First: Spiritual Formation
Spiritual formation that pushes us to pursue peace pushes us to imagine alternatives to war. Though just war theory and pacifism constitute two Christian responses to war, another alternative is emerging – just peacemaking. Just peacemaking works to prevent war by attending to the root causes of international conflict, strengthening the social fabric in areas where conflict persists, holding nations accountable to the rule of law through international institutions, reducing poverty, building partnerships through direct diplomacy, securing loose nuclear materials, and upholding treaties that diminish nuclear arsenals.
Pursuing a nuclear-weapons-free world is one of the most powerful ways that Christians across the theological spectrum can unite to forward God’s agenda of shalom. Calling your members of Congress, writing to the newspaper, taking to the streets – all valuable actions. But they are sustained by a spiritual commitment to peacemaking that listens for God’s whisper over the clamor of culture.
Bring peacemaking into the Christian calendar by marking significant annual events. Gather prayers and stories to commemorate August 6 with a healing service. Offer time for reflection, small-group discussion, and opportunities for action.
Since 9/11, the religious communities of Eugene, Oregon, have gathered on the eleventh day of each month for an interfaith worship service, an occasion to honor our common humanity and pray for peace. Worshipping with those of other religious traditions, we meet God anew in the stranger. If the world’s major religions unite in the belief that a world free of nuclear weapons is essential, surely we can build it.
Remarkable education materials are available that address the nuclear threat. The “Faith Seeking Peace” curriculum by Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND) offers a study of nuclear weapons that includes exercises that appeal to diverse learning styles and materials for worship. Other resources include the “Muslim-Christian Initiative on the Nuclear Weapons Danger” – a booklet about Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim perspectives on nuclear weapons for inter-religious dialogue. Faithful Security offers an organizing toolkit. Consider creating an ongoing Sunday school class that uses these resources.
Churches can host community meetings that address war, peace, and nuclear weapons. When the enormity of the issue overwhelms us, communities of faith can offer prayer and reflection. An interfaith group in Atlanta pauses on the sixth of every month, facing in the direction of Hiroshima, to pray for peace.
Children can create cards, artwork, or blankets to send to a sister church in places like Hiroshima, Pakistan, or Iran. Georgia WAND director and nuclear expert Bobbie Paul remarks: “Children ask the world of us. They deserve people who want to preserve and protect life.” Advocacy for peace, she states, “is not a choice. But it can start with one person in a faith community.” She accepted a peacemaking award on behalf of Georgia WAND from the Atlanta Presbytery with the words, “I am my sister’s keeper, my brother’s keeper …”
Kit Frisinger, a member of Oregon WAND who leads an interdenominational group of women through the “Faith Seeking Peace” curriculum, emphasizes the significance of women gathering, talking, and pursuing peacemaking. In her group, women empower one another to work in their own churches, speaking out in places where the national nuclear narrative complicates discussions of peacemaking.
Women and the Nuclear Threat
Women in particular have long understood that the nuclear threat is not just a practical issue, but a spiritual one. Though 9/11 brought our national security to the fore, many women had not felt safe for some time in a world where the nation with the biggest guns dominates. Because we have lacked job, economic, and health security, women often define national security in broader terms. We lament the dollars spent to maintain these weapons rather than to rebuild crumbling schools or curb climate change.
Furthermore, women know that international violence and terror bleed down into culture, communities, and homes. Iraqi author-activist Zainab Salbi states, “War often enters homes through the kitchen door. Women sense war’s onset early, as they deal with shortages of food, the closing of schools, and often their own reduced freedoms. … What happens to women is often an indicator of what is to come for the rest of society, be it war or peace.”3 That is why women belong, arm in arm, on the front lines of the movement for a nuclear-weapons-free world.
The night Jesus was betrayed, he prayed for believers, that we might “all be one.” On the eve of that terrible confluence of events, which began with a kiss of betrayal and ended in his tortured death, Jesus was preoccupied with the unity of believers. Though his own body would be crucified, Jesus prayed for the communion of his followers – the fellowship we call the body of Christ.
As history trudges through the crises of our day from nuclear weapons to climate change to global recession, it is perilous to pretend that we are somehow separate from the rest of God’s creation. There’s a reflection of God’s image – a spark of that divine Spirit – endowed by our Creator in each one of us. Jesus’ prayer was offered in the hope that we would honor the unity that courses through the heart of God’s diverse creation. He disclosed a divine vision that the strength of what binds us together would defy all attempts to divide us.
Like climate change, the nuclear weapons danger is an era-eclipsing issue bringing Christians together. Out of the insular corners of our denominational and ideological echo chambers, we glimpse a truth that unites: nuclear weapons pose an existential threat to our common life and humanity. This threat to God’s creation cannot be ignored by those who strive to love the world the way God does. Conservatives may hearken back to Ronald Reagan’s declaration: “We seek the total elimination one day of nuclear weapons from the face of the earth.” Liberals may quote Martin Luther King Jr.: “I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of nuclear annihilation.”
The shared vision of these two giants of American history is one that all Christians can affirm in our time: the safeguarding of our children’s future by building a nuclear-weapons-free world. May it be said by our children’s children that by attending to this vision, we lived more fully into Jesus’ prayer for the unity of all believers.
The Rev. Amanda Hendler-Voss is the Faith Communities Educator for Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND) and author of WAND’s “Faith Seeking Peace” curriculum. She is ordained in the United Church of Christ and lives in Asheville, NC, with husband, Seth, and toddler, Myles.
The author wishes to thank the Rev. Joyce Hollyday for recounting Tanemori’s story in a sermon, “Holy Week – Hiroshima 2006” April 9, 2006, at Circle
of Mercy Congregation, Asheville, NC. Tanemori published a memoir, Hiroshima: Bridge to forgiveness – Takashi Tanemori’s Hiroshima Story, in 2007.
Walter Brueggemann, Living Toward a Vision (Philadelphia: United Church Press, 1976), 15.
Zainab Salbi, The Other Side of War: Women’s Stories of Survival and Hope (Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2006), 15.